Independent watchdog HIQA has said it is essential the State child and family agency Tusla optimises the use of staff in its fostering services to prevent duplication of effort and inconsistency in practice.

The comments are made in a review of state-wide inspections of the services conducted over the past two years.

HIQA says that it is cognisant of what it terms "Tusla's reported staffing shortages".

Its review of fostering services in the Dublin South Central area found it has regressed over the past two years where child safeguarding is concerned.

The finding is made by HIQA in a report on an inspection of the area's services which was written last November.

The area is home to 66,000 children and stretches from Ringsend to Ballyfermot to Lucan and encompasses Clondalkin.

Official data suggests that many of them live in "very" or "extremely disadvantaged" neighbourhoods.

The report says the Dublin South Central service area has made some progress in updating garda vetting of foster carers.

However, it notes it had nine foster care households where persons over 16 were residing, despite not having been vetted by gardaí.

HIQA is also critical about the risk that too many foster carers in the area may not be adequately informed about their legal obligation since December 2017 to report child protection concerns above a defined threshold to Tusla.

The report states: "Of the 429 foster carers in the Dublin South Central Service area only 41(9.6%) had completed the e-learning module for the Children First (2017).

"This meant that foster carers may not have had a clear understanding of their role as mandated persons under the legislation."

The report said that in Tusla's Dublin South Central area the management of child protection and welfare concerns remained poor and the governance and oversight of how serious concerns were managed were ineffective.

"There were insufficient safeguarding measures in place for foster carers who had no allocated link social worker," it added, noting that the number of foster carers without that support had increased from 56 (24%) in 2017 to 76 (31%) in 2018.

"There was a number of foster carers who had allegations made against them who did not have a link social worker," it observed.

It said Tusla had difficulty filling vacancies in the area and that, at the time of last July's inspection, there were six vacancies.

The report also finds a regression in child protection in foster care services in the Dublin South East/Wicklow area, stating that: "In 2018, there were 32 young people over 16 and adults over 18 that had not been garda vetted."

In the Midlands and Dublin South East/Wicklow service areas - the remaining parts of the Dublin Mid-Leinster region - where HIQA conducted follow-up inspections last year, the watchdog says improvements were required in both to ensure that assessments of relative carers were completed in the time frames required by the National Standards for Foster Care.

In Dublin South East/Wicklow, the report said: "While some assessments were overdue, the reasons provided such as ill health of foster carers or of foster children were recorded.

"Nine relative foster carers who had children placed with them were unapproved but progress had been made. Four of those assessments had been completed, two had commenced and a further three were due to be completed in October."

In the Midlands in 2017, 11 relative foster carers were undergoing assessments.

"But in three of these, the placement of children had (already) occurred in 2016 and the assessments had not been completed in the intervening 12 months," the report stated.

In 2018, inspectors were told that all of these assessments had been completed. Data provided by the area showed that 14 relative foster carers were undergoing assessments and that no relative foster carers were awaiting assessment.

The area told inspectors that among the measures adopted to ensure the timely completion of relative assessments was the use of a private provider to complete them.

Tusla admits improvement needed

Tusla has accepted the findings of today's fostering reports by HIQA. 

Chief Operations Officer Jim Gibson also welcomed the watchdog's acknowledgement that important headway has been made over the past two years in implementing a range of measures to reform Tusla's the service.

Mr Gibson acknowledged that improvement is still required in areas relating to resourcing and consistency of structures. 

He said they are "being actively addressed" through relevant task committees in each of the four delivery areas concerned, which are focusing on improving services and sharing what has been learned from successful initiatives with the objective of replicating them in other areas.

Meanwhile, Patricia Finlay, Tusla's National Lead for Foster Care, said that while there is room for improvement, the agency is "always working to enhance the system to provide positive and safe environments for children and young people who can't live at home".

She added that Tusla is also working to enhance its support for families which "open their homes to vulnerable children".

The report found that Cavan/Monaghan, Dublin North City and Dublin North were the worst-performing areas in the Dublin North-East region.

Louth-Meath was the only area in the region not to merit a follow-up report last year.

The report says not all foster carers were allocated a social worker and child safeguarding arrangements were not in place for those carers.

It adds that monitoring of safety plans required improvement in Dublin North City, while in Cavan/ Monaghan safety plans had not been put in place when required. 

However, in Dublin North, the follow-up inspection found that all foster carers were allocated a social worker, which HIQA says was "was a significant improvement since the 2017 inspection".

However, data provided by Dublin North indicated that there were 12 foster carers who required up-to-date garda vetting at the time of the follow-up inspection.

The report on last year's follow-up inspection of the Southern Region states that the Cork area had 415 foster households, which were responsible for the foster care of 828 children.

The status of six relative foster carers was listed as 'Not Approved' by the area's foster care committee.

"The oversight of safety planning to ensure the safety of children in these 'Not approved' placements was insufficient and required improvement as there was no system or process in place to ensure adequate safety plans were in place for these children," the report states.

Inspectors found that safeguarding measures had improved last year, in the sense that all approved foster carers were allocated and received a visit from a link worker. 

But the report says the area still had 21 unassessed relative foster carers. HIQA was reassured that all of them had been assigned to a link worker for a screening visit and link worker visit.

The 2018 follow-up foster care inspection in the Carlow/Kilkenny/South Tipperary Service area found some improvements had been made in safeguarding measures. 

The HIQA report says a comprehensive and effective tracking and prioritisation system was put in place to monitor link workers' visits to foster care households.

However, the inspection found little improvement in the management of allegations against foster carers since HIQA's June 2017 inspection.